Weaver's Week 2007-03-18

Weaver's Week Index

'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'


Here's one we made up earlier

Add the pence:

"Two pounds, 25p, £1.47, 16p, Fifty pence."

The answer is 506 pence. We will show our working later.

0898gate Continues

Speaking on Radio 4 last week, ITV's David Elstein made a throwaway remark that the number of calls to television quizzes fell by almost 50% when the Commons heard just what a rip-off these lines were. Calls volumes never recovered, even before Richard and Judy's show provided the launchpad for the Great Premium Rate Telephone Swindle of 2007.

On Monday, ICSTIS confirmed that it was looking into problems regarding Virgin Radio, where listeners were invited to call into a pre-recorded show; and LBC, which failed to tell listeners that its guessing game cost £1.50 per entry.

ITV said that it had found nothing wrong in the handling of its overnight ITV Call And Lose programming. That's "nothing wrong" in the sense of "not breaching the OFCOM or ICSTIS codes", not in the sense of "this show affirms our commitment and traditions to produce the finest television on the planet." Chairman Michael Greed said that ITV Call And Lose was "not Brideshead Revisited," but was "good, harmless fun." For people throwing away pound after pound after pound on a one in many thousands chance of getting through to the studio, this is a curious definition of "harmless."

On Tuesday, ITV slightly revised its previous position. That's "slightly revised" in the sense of "revved up, turned the steering wheel hard right, executed a near-perfect 900-degree doughnut at 130mph before revving off in the exact opposite direction." In a spectacular volte-face, the channel said that it was axing its ITV Play channel. The one that Michael Greed said just one paragraph ago was "good, harmless fun" has turned out to be doing significant harm. Never mind what it was doing to the viewers, the continued presence of this odious nonsense was harming ITV's already tatty brand image, and had to be axed. However, all was not won, as the overnight quizzes continued on ITV's terrestrial channel. Commentators suggested that ITV's motive here wasn't preservation of its brand as cutting its losses - most of Play's profit will have come from the overnight terrestrial transmission, and the before-midnight shows may well have run at a significant loss.

Further claims concerning Eckoh's incompetence were made in one of Tuesday's newspapers. The company said that it would call in the police, as it believed the paper's "evidence" was a malicious fabrication. On the same day, Channel 4 dropped the phone-in contest for its horseracing coverage, following a failure at their agent, Eckoh Communications. Eckoh subsequently blamed Channel 4 for the problem, but its defence was a prime example of nit-picking.

On Wednesday, the venerable television institution that is Blue Peter confessed to its sins. Last November, the show ran a competition to raise money in its appeal for UNICEF. For some reason, the producers were unable to see the call information. Fifty years of honesty, probity, and honour should have led to the feature rolling over to the next live broadcast the following day. Instead, the producers decided to grab a child who was visiting the studio, stick them on the other end of a telephone, and give them the prize. BBC Children's controller Richard Deverell said that this was "a serious error of judgement", and Konnie Huq apologised to the nation. The show's legendary editor Biddy Baxter would have been appalled. At least they had the grace to apologise; ITV just broadcast a bit of card on its deceased Play channel. Probably the most interesting thing it's ever shown, mind...

On Thursday, speaking to BBC television's Breakfast programme, Biddy Baxter said she was appalled. Channel 4 said that it made about £9 million from telephone voting and quizzes. If they're giving over 10% of the entire channel's year to Big Brother and making less than 1% of its income from the source, something is going badly wrong. Channel 5 said that it expects to make £8 million this year, a significant proportion of its income.

Perhaps the worst case, if we're to believe press reports on Saturday, is another CBBC production, Smile. They invented callers, and invited children to call in to a pre-recorded show.

The broadcasters - both commercial and public service - have gone through 0898gate with a whiff of arrogance. They want everything to be declared "good enough", and get right back to raking in their share of the huge call charges. Compliance with the letter of the law is enough for them.

But not for us. Channel 4 and its agent has swindled the British public out of many thousands of pounds. Channel 5 and its agent has lied to the British public. ITV and its agents have cocked up something that ought to have been simple. Idiot-proof, we were going to say, but evidently not. The BBC has been caught inviting telephone calls into a pre-recorded programme.

The television corporations are taking their viewers for fools. They all bang on about a different advertising climate, about the tricks that worked twenty years ago and don't work now. Forgive us if we don't shed tears. 0898gate is proof that the British public still trusted television, and that trust has now been taken for granted and betrayed by creatively and morally bankrupt cowards. As an example of that cowardice, let us come back to that question we posed earlier.

Add the pence: "Two pounds, 25p, £1.47, 16p, Fifty pence."

"Two pounds" = 200p, count the letter p on its own as well plus the portion of the phrase that alludes to "two p", and that makes 203p. Then you add 25p plus the 5p separately and the singular p to make 31p. Then add £1.47 and the singular "one p", making £1.48; 16p plus the separate 6p and the singular p makes 23p. Then "Fifty pence" is taken as 50p plus "Fifty p" plus the single p. And all of this makes the number they first thought of, 506.

Even knowing the answer, even knowing the solution, we still don't fully understand how they got to the answer. But that's a question with a mechanism - however obscure - to arrive at a single answer. Many of the call-and-lose channels spend hours on a simple guessing game. Big Game TV is already under investigation by OFCOM, though not by the police any more, for changing its answers during a contest. We dread to think how many other people are being denied prizes, or simply wasting their money, in this way.

ITV was right to declare a moratorium on premium-rate lines a couple of weeks back. It was wrong to say within a couple of days that everything in the garden was rosy. In the narrow, legalistic approach encouraged by the OFCOM compliance code, perhaps it is, yet the programmes continue to exploit their viewers.

The only approach that has any honour in it whatsoever is for all broadcasters - all of them, from the BBC and ITV through Channels 4 and 5, right the way to Izzy Wizzy Let's Get Quizzy - to stop using all premium rate numbers entirely and at once. That "all profits go to charity" is not an excuse; public trust in these phone-in lines has completely collapsed. They can come back only when a demanding and transparent regulatory code must be agreed, one that will provide transparency in all dealings, and will protect the customer by enforcing a maximum spend per week, per day, per hour. It's worthwhile reminding ourselves of something buried deep in the recent DCMS report:

"We note with interest figures supplied by ITV, showing that 77% of entrants to ITV Play played fewer than five times a day but that the average number of entries played per entrant each day was six. A simple mathematical calculation shows that very high call volumes must be being generated by a minority of callers in order to produce an average call figure which is higher than the number of calls made by 77% of callers."

If curbing that addiction to the redial button makes call-and-lose programmes unviable, so be it. We won't be losing any sleep. If that makes it impossible to charge more than the cost of a first-class stamp and an envelope for a call-in vote, that's what it'll be. There's no reason why it should cost £1 to vote for Dancing on Ice, and open your telephone to spam from the Monkeyvision channel, other than ITV's naked greed. We don't know if there's any truth in a recent claim in the New Statesman that ITV had instructed independent producers to place some form of participation TV at the core of any pitch for a new game show. It smells as though it could be true, and that's a damning indictment of a once-proud channel.

We hope that there are no more skeletons in the closet, and that we might actually be able to lead on something other than 0898gate next week.

University Challenge

Quarter-final: Durham v Edinburgh

The full quarter-final draw is as follows:

  • Manchester beat Wadham Oxford
  • Durham v Edinburgh
  • UCL v York
  • Warwick v Aberystwyth

Durham's reputation has been to start and finish strongly, though not to do well when the audio round is in view. Edinburgh has been in ominous form, so expect fireworks, and a great match against Manchester from whoever wins.

As is traditional, Thumper's opening monologue is cut short by a merciful interruption from one of the players - in this case, Tom Jinks ensures the host won't use "great Channel 5 game show" in definitions of "mole". Honours are even through the first stanza, with both sides taking the lead at some point. We reach the first visual round on the sixth starter, and it's the first buzzer question that Thumper actually gets to finish. The questions are Name That Chicken, one they've probably borrowed from a call-and-lose channel somewhere. Durham's lead is 70-35.

Thumper actually manages to finish a few starters in the second stanza, and the game includes a set of questions on Oxford Colleges from the Twentieth Century. Were they not paying attention when Thumper told us all about Linacre College in the first round? Durham hasn't answered a starter in a few minutes up to the audio round, on Haydn symphonies, and Chris Linskaill's answer for Edinburgh ensures everyone has answered at least one starter correctly. Durham still has a lead, 105-65.

Let's play that great call-and-lose game, What Number Are We Thinking Of?

Q: A Lucas number, a composite number, and a pentagonal pyramidal number, which two-digit figure represents the maximum number of characters, including spaces, that in the UK can be used for the names of racehorses, is the number of chapters into which James Joyce's Ulysees is divided, and is the atomic number of argon?

And if you know the answer... oh.

Durham, Tom Jinks: 18.

Durham has woken up after the Surprise Symphony popped up a little while ago. Second visual round is another call-and-lose television favourite, Name That Diacritical Mark. Though the round goes to Edinburgh, Durham's lead of 145-75 is looking like it's a winner.

Which, of course, is the cue for Edinburgh to stage a bit of a comeback, halving the lead in little more than a minute. Durham, though, has its own little revival, helped by an awful lot of missignals from their opponents. The final score is Durham 220, Edinburgh 115.

A little harsh on Edinburgh, a side that didn't deserve to lose by such a margin. Five starters for Caroline Walker, the Durham captain; she led the side to 71 points. Three starters each for Edinburgh's Tommy Herbert and Chris Linskaill, but Mr. Linskaill takes the best buzzer by virtue of making fewer missignals - we credit him with 37 points. Durham answered 19/36 bonuses correctly with one missignal; Edinburgh had 9/27 with four incorrect buzzes.

Next match: UCL v York

Countdown Update

The Cheltenham festival break has allowed us to catch up on stacks of old matches, so here's the recap since early February.

Paddy Izod completed three wins (329 pts at +54), and looked reasonably comfortable, only to lose to a marvellous comeback from Vivienne Mead. She notched up seven on the bounce, only to lose her octochamp match on the conundrum. 682 at +93 should be enough to see her into the Finals Week. Ganesh was the man who stopped Vivienne in her tracks; he won two matches (245 at +31), before falling to David Tuddenham. Only one win, but 172 at +35 shows he was a good contender with no luck in the draw. Pauline Woodward also looked set for a longer run (3 wins, 346 at +42), but came up against Jean Webby. She did what Vivienne Mead and Anita Freeland couldn't earlier in the series, and became the first female octochamp of the Des era. Her 8 wins amassed 738 points at +29. Raj Kailasam is the incumbent champion; he has three wins.

Just under half-way through the series, and the top four look certain to come back for Finals Week:

  1. Jean Webby 8 wins, 738
  2. Amey Deshpande 8wins, 718
  3. Anita Freeland 7 wins, 734
  4. Vivienne Mead 7 wins, 682
  5. Ian Volante 3 wins, 353
  6. Pauline Woodward 3 wins, 346
  7. Bradley Cates 3 wins, 333
  8. Paddy Izod 3 wins, 329

This Week And Next

We really should reflect on the various Comic Relief programmes that went out this week. Celebrity Star Academy left us wondering with a lot of questions. "Why?" was the prevailing query; why must we have the odious Patrick Kielty and the tone-deaf Richard Park (or was it the other way round?) cluttering up our screens for hours at a time? Yes, the programme raised a lot of money, but couldn't they find something a little more entertaining to do? And, after Mr Kielty called contestant Colin Murray "a big gayer", dozens of viewers complained. Some of them were annoyed at the language used.

Celebrity Beat the Boss proved that Saira Khan is actually really good at this presenting lark. We completely missed Celebrity Car Booty, and were only impressed by Celebrity The Apprentice because Piers Moron and Alistair Campbell - two people for whom we have no time at all - were utterly rubbish.

The fortnightly OFCOM complaints bulletin popped through our email box. This time, The Slammer has been, er, slammed after showing a sequence involving a mime act placing a rubber glove over his head and blowing it up. The broadcasting watchdog reckoned that youngsters at home might try and copy this act, which would be a really silly thing to do. The regulator will continue its investigation into racism on Celebrity Big Brother.

Humphry Lyttelton is to end his Best Of Jazz programme on Radio 2, after almost 40 years. He will return in July with the first of a slightly shorter series, The Rules To Mornington Crescent (Part One).

An unfamiliar shape for the BARB ratings to 4 March. Dancing On Ice had 9.25 million, and The Con Test's Million Pound Final took 6.55m. But TV Burp (5.45m) beat every game show on BBC1 - the biggest was Question of Sport (5.05m), just ahead of Car Booty (5m). The opener of Star Academy took 4.6m, and a sports edition of Link had 4.05m.

A new leader on the minor channels, where the new daytime strongest link is Weakest Link, 3.45m, an inch ahead of Masterchef Goes Large. Dragons' Den and University Challenge all had 3.4m, and no fewer than six BBC2 game shows were more popular than the top-rated Deal or No Deal, which had a mere 3.3m. Ready Steady Cook took 1.9m

Pop Idle US on ITV2 secured 640,000; Dancing on Ice failed to make the channel's top 10. Deal on More4 peaked at 250,000; QI on G2 attracted 210,000, where Dragons' Den 170,000 and Buzzcocks 140,000. Challenge's top show was Monday night Millionaire.

Next week: Soapstar Superchef clutters up the ITV daytime schedule (5pm weekdays), Counterpoint returns to Radio 4 (1.30 Monday), Gladiators muscle onto FTN (7pm weekdays from Tuesday), The Underdog Show begins on BBC2 (8pm Tuesday), and The People's Quiz is chaired by the unlikely combination of William G. Stewart, Jamie Theakston, and Myleene Klass (7.35 Saturday)

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